Melody Walker had just finished working the lunch rush at a Chipotle in New York City when her manager walked up and told her, in front of several co-workers, that she was fired. Walker says she’d worked there almost a year without any complaints from the boss. When the 36-year-old single mom asked him for an explanation, he said it was because she wasn’t smiling. (This was 2018, pre-masks.) “There were no customers there to smile at,” Walker recalls. As she packed up her stuff, she told inquiring co-workers why she was leaving early. “They thought it was wrong, too, but what can they say?” she says. “Because they’ll get fired, too.”
This is how the U.S. works under at-will employment, a legal standard that allows companies to fire people for almost any reason—and sometimes for no reason at all. Unlike in other wealthy countries, where bosses generally have to provide just cause for termination, at-will positions account for most U.S. jobs. This probably includes your job, dear reader. Most white-collar and professional workers aren’t any more legally protected from their bosses’ whims than Walker was. Google software engineers, Wells Fargo & Co. bankers, and Mayo Clinic surgeons work at will. So do humble Bloomberg reporters. The only Americans with a higher standard of protection tend to be limited to the C-suite, the public sector, the nation’s dwindling unionized workplaces, and—because of a complex, decades-old compromise—Montana.